Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Universal Studios Hollywood (Monday 8 December, 10pm)

We got up nice and early, had breakfast, and were waiting for the bus about twenty minutes early. There were quite a few people waiting, and when the bus finally arrived, we found there were more people than seats. As Universal Studios is about an hour's drive away from Anaheim, we weren't too thrilled at the prospect of having to stand the whole way, especially as we had paid US$30 each for the bus tickets. Fortunately, I only had to stand for about five minutes (someone carried their child in their lap, so Juliette could sit down): the bus took us to the Grayline depot, where the passengers got put onto different buses, depending on where they were going.

Our bus driver, Juan, was great. He talked the whole way to Hollywood, and when he started with, "Okay, we'll be in Mexico in about two hours," I knew it was going to be entertaining. Because of traffic on the freeways, he took us through downtown Los Angeles, pointing out various landmarks and new buildings (we got to see the Hollywood sign, but because of the backup camera's limitations, I couldn't get a good photo).

Getting to Universal Studios, our CityPass meant we didn't have to wait in line for tickets, though we did have to wait to get through the turnstiles into the park itself. While waiting, I had an epiphany about why there are always roped lanes funneling people towards attractions and gates: people here have no idea about how to queue. Get a group of people here waiting to enter something, and if there aren't any ropes, they'll form a mass with people pushing their way forwards, with no thoughts of politely waiting their turn. (Grizzle mode off....)

Once we got in, we went straight to The Simpsons ride, where you sit in a 8-seat carriage, which is mounted on an hydraulic platform. It's quite amazing how much a little bit of movement in the right direction combined with the right visuals fools your body. All through the ride, I knew that the platform wasn't going anywhere, but my senses were screaming that I was falling hundreds of feet. Not for the faint of heart!

After lurching away from that ride, we went to the Universal's Animal Actors show, with trained dogs, cats, birds, rats, a pig, a monkey, and an orang-utan putting on a really good show (along with their trainers). Outside, they had another trainer with some dogs, so we also got our dog-petting fix :-)

We went down to the Lower Lot and on to the Jurassic Park ride. This is a pretty sedate affair, taking you along a short river ride past animatronic dinosaurs. Then things start to "go wrong", and you get shaken a little, menaced by a T-rex and other dinosaurs (including being squirted by Dilophosaurs), culminating in an 84-foot vertical drop. No fooled senses here: the carriage tips over and you're looking straight down, before arriving at the bottom in a large splash of water.

By this point, I was feeling distinctly whoozy, but Juliette enjoyed the Jurassic Park ride so much, she went round again!

We went through the gift shop, and got t-shirts (like SeaWorld, every attraction has its own related gift shop near by). Around the corner, there was a facepainting stall, and Juliette got her face painted. Next to that was the Universal Experience, which is a static display about the history of Universal studios, with memorabilia from some of Universal's highest grossing movies.

By now it was 1pm, so we joined the queue for the Special Effects Stages. Here, you're taken through three stages, each relating to a different area of special effects. This was very entertaining, but is apparently being removed next year (along with the Backdraft ride) to make way for a Transformers ride.

Back up to the Upper Lot, we meandered around the various stores and restaurants. Juliette got some popcorn, which was served coated in sugar (much to Juliette's disgust). Americans seem to like sweet things a lot, something we noticed at breakfast: heavily sweetened orange juice and chocolate donuts were amongst the buffet selections.

Our bus driver had recommended the WaterWorld show, but the next one wasn't until 4pm, so we went on the Studio Tour. You get loaded into a tram, and driven around the studio backlots. Again, very entertaining. There were several moments where we had to stop and be quiet because of filming on a nearby set (three breaks for Desperate Housewives and one for something else). Didn't get to see any stars, though.

And just because this was a tour of the backlots didn't mean we has escaped theme park rides: we went across a rickety bridge, which "fell apart" as we crossed; got squirted by Dilophosaurs (again!); shaken in a simulated earthquake; attacked by Bruce from Jaws; "cursed" by Imotep from The Mummy movies; and menaced by Norman Bates (from Hitchcock's Psycho). My favourite part of this ride was the crashed 747 set from Spielberg's War of the Worlds remake: apparently, they had taken an actual 747 airliner and dismantled it for the set. (It was only as we were driving away from the set that I remembered that we are going to be on a 747 in a couple of days!)

By the time the Studio Tour finished, it was 3:45, so we dashed to the other side of the park to the WaterWorld show. Juan had warned us that sitting in the front rows means you'll almost certainly get wet, so we carefully chose seats outside the soak zone. The show is an abbreviated re-telling of the movie, with lots of pyrotechnics and stunts by the performers (no Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, or Dennis Hopper).

After the show, we stopped by a couple more gift shops, before heading to the Shrek 4D show. This was a short film, set between the first and second movie, and involved the ghost of Farquad attempting to get his revenge. The 3D effects were very well done. The seats also lurch around according to the action on the screen, with air jets and water squirters completing the effects (particularly unnerving in the scene with the spiders!). The movie also included a very funny scene that parodied the trench run from Star Wars.

We got out of the theatre, and it was 5:15. On the bus ride in, Juan had told us three numbers: 65775 (the number of the bus), 530 (the time the bus would leave, at 5:30); and 9550 (the approximate taxi fare from Universal to Anaheim, $95.50). So we had a mad dash to the exit and around the bus park, to find the right bus and get on it. We were obviously the last passengers our bus was waiting for, as he shut the door and moved off as soon as we were aboard.

The bus ride back wasn't anything special -- it was dark, and traffic was heavy -- but we at least got dropped off a couple of doors down from our hotel, around 7:15. We were pretty tired so we had a nap, before I got up to have a bite to eat and write this blog entry. The internet connection's a bit up and down, so not sure when this will actually get posted.

Disneyland tomorrow.

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